Editor’s Note: This is a response written by Tracy Beckman, following Rhinelander School District Superintendent Kelli Jacobi’s letter to parents that was published on StarJournalNow.com June 1, 2015.
Items included in the State Budget that will significantly impact the School District of Rhinelander
- School District of Rhinelander public schools and schools across the state will have their state aid cut to allow for voucher expansion, i.e. public tax dollars used to pay for a student’s private education. Voucher expansion will mean less funding for public schools, including the School District of Rhinelander. Any decision that is made to publicly fund religious and other private schools will diminish the quality of education in our public schools.
Tracy Beckman: School Vouchers are given to families instead of school districts so parents can choose the best fit for their own child. It puts the choice for their child’s education in their hands and they can choose public or private schools. The only way aid will be cut to a school is if a parent chooses to remove their child from that school. The ‘per student’ aid would go with the student. It is not an across the board cut to schools to allow for the program, the money just stays with the student. Religious and other private schools, including Charter Schools have given families a choice for their own children if their needs are not being met in the typical public school setting. If a student leaving under the Voucher Program diminishes the quality of education for all other students in the public system, then there is already something very wrong.
- According to Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, this budget drives Wisconsin under the national average in per pupil spending. Wisconsin has had a proud tradition of adequately funding our public school system. The legislature is pouring money into private schools at the expense of maintaining a public system that has been a source of pride in our state for over 100 years.
Tracy Beckman: One should ask why the inference is being made that ‘being under the average’ in spending is somehow wrong? There are plenty of schools performing above average academically while spending less per pupil than the national average. Wisconsin has not had a proud tradition of adequately funding our public school system, especially here in the Northwoods. Please recall that every three years the Rhinelander School Board votes to go to referendum in order to approve an increase in the funding cap to compensate for the shortfall of state funds under the current funding formula. The current funding formula is anything but a ‘proud tradition’ in this state. It pits districts and taxpayers against one-another because of the perceived unfairness of the formula to those in districts with a higher tax-base. Our teachers and administrators engage our students in a one-sided narrative about the ‘unfair funding formula’ and put them to work every three years advocating for the passage of the referendum. Our district has been told over and over again that there will be no change to the State funding formula anywhere in the near to future decades. Elected officials, put there for the sole purpose of going to Madison to seek changes in the funding formula, have come back and said it’s no use; it will not change anytime soon. Yet, instead of coming up with innovative funding ideas that create a viable future plan to replace the lost funds, our school board chooses to engage the community in a divisive referendum every three years. By the way, state funding only accounts for 20% of the School District of Rhinelander’s budget. Also, 2016 is fast approaching and there are already rumblings about another referendum. It is unfair to say the legislature is ‘pouring money’ into private schools. They are proposing a Voucher Program so families can choose.
- The new law eliminates many standards for licensing teachers – no bachelor’s degree would be needed to teach our students in multiple subject areas. Educational programs and training have been built and improved over decades, with Wisconsin having one of the top performing educational systems in the nation. With this one legislative change, students could have undertrained and ill-prepared educators, without the prerequisite knowledge to meet the many needs of our students.
Tracy Beckman: A Bachelor’s Degree is and would still be required to teach core subjects needed to meet DPI secondary education standards and requirements for HS graduation, ie: Secondary English, Math, Science and Social Studies. WI DPI’s requirements for home-schooled and virtual-schooled children are very liberal, already giving much leeway to parents to choose alternative forms of community educators. In addition, Community and Technical Colleges all over the state, including Nicolet College right here in Rhinelander, employ educators based on their life and professional experience and they do not have a teaching degree or a WI teacher’s license. As educational models have evolved over the years, life and professional experience has been embraced by progressive educators because it can be a valuable educational tool.
- The tests that students are required to take will be different for the third consecutive year. Districts will not be required to take the same tests; making district-to-district comparisons very difficult. We welcome the opportunity to compare ourselves to any competing schools. Common sense tells us that adequate comparisons can only be made when students in each district are taking the same standardized tests. This change also makes it impossible to compare public, private, and charter schools.
Tracy Beckman: While this point alone is not a reason to support or oppose the proposed budget, it deserves comment because including it at all shows how much teaching to tests has become a preoccupation for school districts. It is a result of government programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These programs directly tie the amount of funding aid to test results which has led administrators to put enormous amounts of pressure on teachers and students to perform. While this is a systemic problem starting at the federal level, it affects each classroom. Our talented and committed teachers are now having their hands tied to standards and tests instead of being free to teach passionately using their own talents and skills.
- The proposed law allows students in special education to use $12,000 in publicly funded annual vouchers to attend private and parochial schools. In these schools, students would not be guaranteed the legal rights and protections afforded to them by federal law. In addition, the dollar amount is completely arbitrary, as actual costs vary drastically from student to student. At the same time that the legislature is allocating money for special education students in private/parochial schools, it has not increased funding for public school special education students in eight years.
Tracy Beckman: IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) states that all school districts are required to set aside funds for special needs students that do not attend public school. This is already a law. While it is true they are not guaranteed legal rights and protections afforded to them by federal law, some parents weigh their options and still view private or parochial as a better fit. In these cases, parents are allowed to meet with district officials and review the student’s IEP to see what allowances the district would be willing to pay for from the set aside funds. In other words, it is the district that decides what help they’re willing or able to give to a special needs child in their district that does not attend public school. Parents, however, have to approach them and ask for the help. To not give this context is to not tell the entire story of why special needs students would be allowed to use these vouchers.
- The new law would allow “learning portfolios” to replace up to one-half the credits needed to graduate from high school. The law would require that a diploma earned in this manner be the equivalent of a diploma earned through actual course completion. This proposal has the potential to change what high schools look and feel like across the state; including the likelihood that the rigor needed to earn a high school diploma would be significantly reduced, jeopardizing both in and out-of-state college acceptance.
Tracy Beckman: Community colleges are accepting HSED’s & GED’s already because they realize the educational model is changing from the normal ‘course work’ as referred to above, to many different models including project work, hands-on community partnerships, virtual schools and life experience, many of which are done outside of the classroom and of course, on the internet. The proven fact that people learn in different ways is the very reason progressive educators were compelled to develop new models. It could be argued that it provides a better overall and well-rounded education. What High School looks like is changing and educators should be embracing the change and helping implement the very best models to ensure success. In no way is there proof to the subjective statement that this type of learning is less rigorous or that it would jeopardize college acceptance.
- The new law would allow home-schooled students and virtual school students to participate in any extra-curricular or athletic team that our school district offers. This raises a multitude of eligibility questions and different eligibility requirements for members of the same team. The WIAA (WI Interscholastic Athletic Association) has come out strongly against this proposal, as have many home-school advocates.
Tracy Beckman: All participants would still be required to adhere to all the rules and regulations of any activity. The district should provide a list of the homeschool advocates from the Rhinelander School District that oppose this change. That would go a long way toward giving any credence at all to this statement. Extra-curricular coaches and leaders have actually actively recruited home-schooled, virtual and Charter school students to join their teams/clubs. They want their drive and talents on their teams! There is no reason that any student that wants to join an activity and agrees to the rules, shouldn’t be allowed to join an activity and this part of the law would make that official.
- There is a new requirement in the law that mandates passing a civics assessment for high school graduation. This would be a 100 question test. This test is in addition to the multitude of other state mandated tests that students are already required to take. This proposal, set to become law, has had very little discussion and has no plan for implementation.
Tracy Beckman: District administrators are highly motivated to make sure all the best implementation practices are used for administering tests to which funding is linked. They even going so far as to send several levels of home messages prior to test day telling parents to make sure their kids eat and sleep properly and how vitally important the tests are. One would hope they would be just as motivated to do a good job implementing and addressing the outcomes of this important test for students because students should be able to pass a civics test before they graduate.
- Our schools will be subject to a rating system based on stars. Can a star-rating system adequately portray the quality of our schools? The current school report cards indicate if schools are failing to meet, meeting, or exceeding expectations with specific feedback on areas of strength and recommendations for addressing concerns.
Tracy Beckman: Whichever rating system is used, feedback is still required and districts will still need to address concerns.
The inclusion of policy and provision changes in the State budget eliminates the possibility of open discussion through the hearing process. These late additions haven’t been consistently vetted by appropriate stakeholders and don’t belong in the budget.
Tracy Beckman: Agreed that including these items in the state budget eliminates discussion, however ‘appropriate stakeholders’ does include the taxpayers and the voters of WI and they have spoken.
If you are also concerned about the impact that the state budget has on the School District of Rhinelander, please contact the following legislators as soon as possible. They will begin voting on the budget in the upcoming weeks.
Tracy Beckman: Contact your legislators to show your opposition or your support. A detailed account of pros and cons regarding each issue of concern to administrators should have been given to the parents of the district so they can make an informed decision. The new budget challenges the status-quo which is cause for concern; however it also includes innovative, new ideas in an attempt to be progressive about educating our kids. Both sides deserve equal time and equal discussion at the local level and especially in the classroom. The most important stake-holders are our kids and they deserve to have both sides of this budget debate presented to them for vigorous debate. They may, in fact, have the solutions that we adults lack.
Rebuttal by Tracy Beckman
- Senator Tom Tiffany, Room 409 South – State Capitol, Madison, WI 53707-7882 Phone: (608) 266-2509 / Email: Sen.Tiffany@legis.wi.gov
- Representative Rob Swearingen, Room 123 West – State Capitol, P.O. Box 8953, Madison, WI 53708 Phone: (608) 266-7141 or (888) 534-0034 / Fax: (608) 282-3634 / Email: Rep.Swearingen@legis.wisconsin.gov
- Representative Mary Czaja, Room 321 East – State Capitol, P.O. Box 8952, Madison WI 53708 Phone: (608) 266-7694 or (888) 534-0035 / Fax: (608) 282-3635 / Email: Rep.Czaja@legis.wisconsin.gov
Adopted on May 29, 2015 for the School District of Rhinelander by Superintendent Kelli Jacobi and Judy Conlin, Board of Education Vice-President Originators of this document were Bernard Nikolay, Cambridge School District Superintendent of Schools, Joe Pleshek, Cambridge School Board President, and Peg Sullivan, Cambridge School Board Member (Cambridge School District Communications Committee). Authorization of its use, with changes to reflect School District of Rhinelander information, was provided by Superintendent Nikolay.